As Talent and Training Partner at FTSE250 pub chain Mitchells & Butlers, Katie O’Sullivan was one of the many hospitality workers furloughed when the coronavirus pandemic hit the UK and the sector all but came to a halt in March 2020. When an email advertising the CIPD’s new charity mentoring scheme landed in her inbox, the timing could not have been more perfect. She had been applying for charity volunteering work but hadn’t heard anything back.

'I was feeling quite helpless,' she explains. 'I got into HR because I like helping people and then felt that I was not able to give back during this difficult time. So when the CIPD communication came through I thought, brilliant, I can utilise my skills, give something back and stop myself from just staring at the grass growing.'

Katie applied to the programme and was matched with Raj Sarai, HR manager at Walsall-based charity Steps to Work, as her mentee. Steps to Work helps the hardest to reach people in deprived areas of the West Midlands and Staffordshire start their journey to employment.

Katie already had some mentoring experience with the hospitality industry’s Springboard charity and is an accredited business coach at Mitchells & Butlers, which runs some 1,780 managed pubs, bars, and restaurants throughout the UK. She had been at the company for just over 11 years in recruitment, as a business partner and head of brand HR roles. As her secondment as Talent & Training Partner was coming to an end at the end of the Summer , she was moving back to her previous recruitment role when the virus struck, and she joined many others on furlough.

'I saw this scheme as an opportunity to gain some more formal mentoring experience. It was also a chance to keep my brain switched on,' she laughs.

It’s all about the chemistry

As the country was in lockdown, the mentoring sessions were conducted remotely. They kicked off the six month mentoring relationship with what Katie calls a 'chemistry session'.

'This is all about finding out whether we will get on. For example, does she think she will be able to talk to me? Can she tell me a bit about her organisation and I will tell her a bit about me and my experience. So this initial conversation is quite informal – a ‘getting to know each other’ session and then agreeing how we're going to work things going forward,' she explains.

With many changes at Steps to Work in the previous 12 months, including a programme to define its values and the need for a more strategic HR approach, Raj faced many challenges, especially as she was the only person in HR. Katie could relate to this. Her own HR journey began when she was working at a restaurant chain and was asked to move into an HR role post maternity leave, to sort out the employee handbook and contracts. The remit turned into ‘everything to do with people’ over the course of five years’.

'It reminded me what it was like when I started my career in HR, finding things out for myself and setting things up from scratch. I was very much self-taught HR. So thinking back to my experience of working on my own, teaching myself HR and sifting through all of the information that's available out there, I understood where Raj was coming from.'

They decided to put a date in every Monday for at least an hour and to conduct the sessions via WhatsApp video. This gave a structure, but in reality they took a flexible approach, with Raj telling Katie every Friday whether she wanted the session or not and, if so, what particular areas she wanted to explore that week. This informal approach worked well for both mentee and mentor, although Katie concedes it did make it more difficult to look back at the end of the six months to measure the results in the way you would with a more formal coaching programme.

According to Katie, her mentee was clear about what she wanted to get out of each session.

'I would always start by asking what she wanted to get out of the session but it was a lot more about her asking me questions,' she says. 'I would ask some questions in order to understand a bit of the background or what was driving her questions. But she came to the session knowing what she wanted to get out of it, which was great. And she'd always come away from it feeling that she got what she needed from it.'

Much of the mentoring focused on HR strategy. Katie was able to help her mentee on topics including how to communicate an HR strategy, how to engage and influence key stakeholders and leaders, and how to gain feedback from them. They also had a session around attraction and recruitment and a specific one on reward and recognition mechanics.

'It was very much about giving Raj a different way of thinking and the ability to see an issue through a different pair of eyes. I was able to share resources, be they a useful model, or tools I had used over the years with Mitchells & Butlers.

One of the core areas they worked on was how to outline the behaviours expected in your organisation. Katie was able to share how her company had just switched to a new appraisal system which was heavily focussed around giving behavioural feedback and setting SMART objectives. She helped Raj to make these processes more objective, rather than being influenced by line managers’ gut feelings or favouritism.

While Steps to Work, like many charities and small businesses, did not have the budget of a large Plc like Mitchells & Butlers, sharing the ideas and methods used in larger businesses was still valuable, says Katie. 'It was actually good not knowing a lot about the charity sector or not knowing the ins and outs of how her charity operates, because I just shared my knowledge and then Raj was able to take the bits that would work for her from that,' she says.

From activating your brain to appreciating your value: the benefits of mentoring

The mentoring programme had beneficial impacts for both parties, Katie believes. One of the key benefits for a charity mentee is that it can help them to find the right information for their organisation on the many broad topics in HR, which can be a minefield. In this case, a mentor acts like a curating service based on practical knowledge and insights they’ve acquired over time.

For Katie, one of the biggest benefits of mentoring during the pandemic was helping to keep her brain active, as she puts it. 'I had been very very busy in the corporate world – meetings, events, travel and then everything stopped. So I switched off and it felt like I had been in holiday mode for quite a long time. Doing this charity work really did get my brain activated. And it kept me in touch with things that I was doing before I was furloughed as well. So it refreshed a lot of things for me, which was useful.'

There are longer-term benefits to taking part in the scheme too. The concept of ‘giving back’ is one that resonates with most mentors, and Katie is no different, describing helping other people as very rewarding. Another benefit, which is perhaps underestimated, is that it can also help mentors to realise how much value they can offer. As Katie says: 'When you’re in your day-to-day job you take your knowledge, information and experience for granted. You can underestimate your value. That knowledge and experience can be really eye-opening for somebody else. You don’t appreciate that until you start talking about it and sharing it with other people.'

Mentoring helps to raise your profile, internally and externally. Katie describes her line manager as 'blown away' with some of the ways she had helped others during furlough. She received a LinkedIn recommendation from her mentee about the impact of working with her, something that can only add to her CV.

Katie says taking part in the programme has given her the mentoring bug. During her time on furlough, she also worked on call for a domiciliary care organisation and offered mentoring to a staff member who wants to move into HR.

'The programme has made me think more about offering myself as a mentor rather than waiting to be asked,' she says. 'When I spoke to Raj at the end of the programme she said the sessions had been so useful. I thought I was just chatting away about things we do at work and experiences I had. But seeing how valuable this was for her made me realise just how much benefit mentoring can bring to people.'